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« CBS News on animal production and antibiotics—really this time | Main | Game on for child nutrition »

February 11, 2010

Katie Couric challenges antibiotic use in factory farms

Katie Couric's two-part series (see part one and part two) on antibiotics and agriculture that ended last night won't help agribusiness sleep any better. The series highlights the human costs of this practice through the story of poultry workers infected with the antibiotic resistant MRSA bacteria (IATP's David Wallinga and Marie Kulick have highlighted this emerging threat). It includes an admission by FDA Deputy Director Joshua Sharfstein that monitoring (some would be a start) of antibiotic use at these industrial operations needs to be improved. And finally, it shows that this massive overuse of antibiotics isn't necessary—Denmark and other countries in Europe have seen their hog industry do just fine after limiting antibiotic use to sick animals.

It's hard to overstate how important this issue is to the big industrial hog and poultry companies. There is a sense of near panic in agribusiness publications like Feedstuffs and Meatingplace, where the challenge to antibiotic overuse is daily front page news.

What is most telling from the Couric series is the response from the National Pork Board, arguing that costs would increase for consumers without using antibiotics as the industry does today (largely for growth promotion and to prevent the spread of disease linked to overcrowding). The industry doesn't acknowledge the considerable hidden cost of contributing to rising antibiotic resistant bacteria—a cost not reflected in supermarket aisles. 

No wonder common-sense restrictions on unnecessary overuse of antibiotics in animal production, proposed in a bill rapidly gaining support in Congress, has kicked the industry's lobbying machine into overdrive. Hopefully, Couric's series will open a few more eyes in Congress. 

Ben Lilliston


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Barth Anderson

Great piece, Ben, and I totally agree that Couric's piece might be a tipping point on the debate over antibiotics (for better or worse).

By the way, there's a cool discussion going on over at Fair Food Fight on the CBS series, antibiotics, and the Danish experiment. Conventional livestock farmers, consumers, and author Maryn McKenna are weighing in on the more complex aspects that Couric's piece didn't/couldn't dive into. Would love your thoughts, too.

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